Trapped in Free Market Korea: A Holiday in Rason (Part 2/2)

February 10th, 2011
4

****If you missed part one, please click here.****

Visiting the darkened half of the Korean peninsula is never a joyful experience. However, at its best, it has a frisson of excitement; a sense that you are a young pioneer – an explorer in an unknown land. For a second, it is easy to entertain the illusion that you are a fabulous cultural raconteur, that you really are interesting, charming – blessed with extraordinary insight into your own and other cultures alike. However, by this point in our journey this feeling had disappeared, only to be replaced by a real sense of threat – a genuine worry that we, like others before, would be swallowed up by the world’s most secretive state.

The next morning, as we prepared for our visit to the Emperor Hotel, there was still no word. This was meant to be our final day in Rason, the day we departed. The visa situation was supposed to have been sorted out overnight – but we had heard nothing. As we wove around the bays towards our destination, the thought of any further time in this province did not in any way appeal.

Emperer Hotel

The incongruity of the Emperor Hotel was enough to make us forget our troubles – albeit briefly. The Emperor Hotel is a 5 star, Hong Kong-owned monstrosity overlooking the sea, towards Pipa Island.

Casino at Emperor Hotel

It’s apparently where a sojourning Chinese official gambled away the entire budget of a town – a story I am assured is true but sounds like the sort of folk nonsense that is repeatedly trotted out when discussing the hermit state. Its decadence is quite startling – wandering around the restaurants and terraces I felt shabby, under-dressed and unwelcome; an emotional tricolon I normally associate with the better class of Western hotels.

Towards Pipa Island

Afterwards, we took a stroll around Pipa island – supposedly a Korean beauty spot. It had beautiful scenery, winding, oceanside walks…  everything should have been perfect – but it was empty, quiet, foreboding.

The path by the sea ended in a mysterious, empty, Lynchian folly. For a while we were followed by a spooky dog. Old fishermen, clutching dried squid, repeatedly encouraged us to go on seal watching excursions around the bay.

Seal Statue

Drying squid

Yes, I’m sure that dog was just being friendly, as were the fisherman, however in our unsettled state everything had an extra-sensory perspective. Whilst we walked around the island, attempting as much as we could to enjoy its oppressive heat and disquieting scenery, we tried to engage Mr. Park (name changed to protect identity) in conversation about everything from music to, well, the weather. However it was almost impossible to move him from his silence. As we strode along the shingle, he kept slightly behind, his brow furrowed, his back arched, staring down at his feet. Lunch felt like a sort of meta-comment upon the whole experience: frozen octopus, raw.

However, as we finished our gently defrosting lunch, there was a call. Our visas had come through – we could leave today! Mr. Park, in an uncharacteristic fit of emotion, even shook my hand, warmly. A smile flashed across his face; he was only in his early thirties, but looked much older. For a second, he looked almost youthful.

Kids outside the Hothouse

We travelled back in a celebratory mood. For what seemed like a treat, Mr. Park stopped at the KJI Hothouse. As we exited the car, crowds of schoolchildren dallied, chattering excitedly. I recalled a conversation from the previous day:

“What are your favourite flowers?” Mr. Park had asked me.

“Oh, um, I don’t know,” I expounded eloquently. “What about you?”

“I have two.”

He leaned in seriously, raising two fingers.

“KimjongIlia, and Kimilsungia.”

Kimjongilia & Kimsungia

At the Hothouse, there was a special exhibition to celebrate the brilliant, rose-like beauty of KimjongiIlia and the fragile violet of Kimilsungia. As we wandered through the displays, the reverence and attention to detail was simultaneously comic and pathetic.

Model Founding of the Workers Party

Scene at the Hothouse

The little models of the Monument to the Workers Party, the Juche tower and the Arc of Triumph all sat, blossoming in their floral surroundings – celebrating the achievements of great leader and his brood on an amusingly diminutive scale. Ironically, the dwarf-like monuments looked so silly that the displays even came across as slightly subversive.

The queue to get in

As we snapped away, the kids shuffled around, barely registering the exhibits. They were more interested in each other, flirting, joking, jostling; it was refreshing to see that teenagers blossom no matter how arid the soil. As we left, leaving the children still ambling around the high camp, high detail displays, I wondered: what sort of flower would KimJongUnia be?

We arrived back at our hotel, refreshed and relaxed and slightly fragrant. It was now about two in the afternoon. We had visas! Now, all we needed was the tour agency to confirm everything and we could finally leave this stressful, exhausting country. We sat, bagged up and ready in reception, waiting for the call. Waiting for The Director.

But nothing happened.

Really, nothing.

The omnipresent glare of the Kims

For the next 6 hours, we waited in the hotel. Mr. Park, of course, didn’t have the authority to phone the travel agency and we didn’t have the authority to even step out into the square. As the day wore on the reception darkened, as did Mr. Park’s face, barely illuminated by the flickering technicolour of the reception’s TV set. When evening arrived, it looked like we were staying another night. As we climbed up the stairs, I looked back: all I could see in the pitch black lobby was Mr. Park, slumped on the sofa, his eyes staring off past the screen, the endless peons to the leader, the perpetual waves of misinformation.

The Hotel Telephone

*****

We dined late. Despite this, spirits began to lift – we may be staying another night, but Mr. Park seemed sure we’d leave tomorrow. However, just as the drink started to flow and we relaxed, there was a call. It was the Director. We had to go to his office, at once.

Even though the building was dark and the city darker, the Director was still in his office, soberly dressed, his Kim Il Sung badge bright and shiny in the fluorescent office lights. Today he wore a midnight blue which was somewhat fitting due to the lateness of the hour. The office was the same as ever, except now there were bananas on the table as a sort of tropical centre-piece. We took a seat, thinking that we were just going to check through our visas – a precursor to tomorrow’s assured departure. However:

“There is a problem.”

 

There is a problem with the Visas?

“No.” He said, through Mr. Park. “Two people had to go to the visa overnight not one. In the taxi. So more money is needed.”

“Why did two people have to go?”

“They had to go,” he said, matter-of-factly.

We looked at each other. Mr. Park looked uncomfortable as he translated further:

“Also, there were other expenses. Many other expenses.”

We didn’t have any money left, aside from a few loose Rimimbi and perhaps a stray Euro remaining from the first tour.

“Also, there is this.”

A fax was produced, in Korean.

“You were supposed to stay 2 nights 3 days – you are staying an extra night. That is also part of the cost.”

The Director leaned forward and took off his glasses in a show of absolute sincerity.

“Normally it would be cheap… but unfortunately this weekend there is a conference. Rooms are expensive. “Unfortunately” he said, pushing the fax across to us in its unreadable glory, “you have to pay 1300 RMB each.” He leaned back, satisfied.

North Korea is not a place littered with ATMs – indeed, there is barely an awareness of currency. Mr. Park only the previous day, could not understand that Britain did not use the Euro. “Why? You are European!” “Well, it’s a complicated issue…” “But you must use the Euro! You must!” We tried to explain to him the complexities of European integration, but for some reason he failed to grasp the bureaucratic wranglings of the common market (“The Euro is for Europe!” he said, a slogan that wouldn’t fly in the UK).

Needless to say, we could not obtain any more money. Worse, we could not read the fax in order to challenge this extortion. Collectively we baulked. Left with no choice, we went on the offensive, and did what all good travellers do abroad – we blamed someone else.

It’s the tourist company’s responsibility. They must pay – it’s their fault we don’t have the right documents.”

There was a look of consternation.

“The tourist company?”

The Chinese tour company. We followed their plan, we asked for a three day tour.

It was a gamble, a lie. The Director of Tourism looked mighty unhappy. He and Mr. Park disputed heatedly – Mr. Park appeared to be winning.  With a shrug, the Director of Tourism conceded, but only briefly, leaving us with an uncertain threat:

“You will have to pay before you can leave. You will not leave otherwise. We shall send a fax to confirm with the tourist company in the morning – this will settle the matter.”

*****

We sat in our room, Mr. Park on the bed, staring at the floor.  Barely a word had been said since we had arrived back. The room was stifling – the air from the window barely filtered through the bars, a reminder of the tangible nature of our detention. Outside, neon flared across the square, giving a green tint to Mr. Park’s silent, pensive face. After a while – we had to ask the question:

“Mr. Park… are we safe?

Mr. Park played with his sleeve, whilst we wretchedly waited for his answer. He bent forward, hunched his arms to his chest, and spoke so softly we could barely hear:

“I do not know.”

There was a long silence. A very, very long silence.

“It depends on this fax. On the money. The Problem is the 1300 RMB. But you cannot pay… I…”

He gestured pathetically, words failing him. In the stillness, the fluorescents became increasingly oppressive. For the first time we took in our surroundings as residents, not migrants. Separately, each item in the hotel-room was merely ugly. Together, however, they made an unsettling mosaic – whose unpleasantness was only magnified by the resounding silence.

Mr. Park got up.

He stooped under the archway of our room and shuffled on his shoes.

He turned around.

“This conversation is private. If it were to be known about it there would be a… big accident.”

He shut the door behind him, leaving us alone.

*****

The next day, I was at my business when Mr. Park burst into my room. For a second, there was awkwardness as he stared through the semi-opaque window at me sitting on the throne, trying to complete a necessary task that had become increasingly so, partly thanks to yesterday’s frozen octopus. I gave him a wave. He continued to stare, blankly. After a few seconds, I capitulated:

“Uh, can I help you Mr. Park?”

He stared.

“Um. Mr. Park?”

Finally, he spoke.

“Mr. Nicholas, you have come now.”

He vanished. I followed him into the neighbouring room, where he stood, nervous energy radiating. My companions looked dazed and half asleep.

“There is a solution. There is best evidence. The electronic book.”

On the first day, before we had moved to the Namsum, we had shown Mr. Park a saved webpage on my Kindle, Amazon’s plucky little electronic book reader. We had saved the Koryo tours “Visiting Rason” three day itinerary on the device’s experimental web browser. Mr Park’s plan was that we pass off this itinerary as the model for our own, and say that, regrettably, a mistake had been made – although no-one was to blame directly. It sounded plausible. Ish.

*****

At breakfast, there was a sense of optimism renewed. However, when our breakfast rice arrived, a calamity happened. Perhaps sensing its newfound importance, the Kindle crashed magnificently. As it slowly reset itself, it wiped away our last trace of hope, replacing it with Agatha Christie’s wizened face, carefully rendered in e-ink.

As I gazed into Agatha’s cold, dead eyes, Mr. Park arrived at the table and sat down, smiling a little as he did. Wearily, I began:

Mr. Park…

“Mm?” He mumbled, slurping his soup.

The electronic book… it has broken.”

He appeared to ignore this information. The driver’s phone rang and he left the table to answer it. I shared a look with my companion. He’d try this time – maybe I wasn’t explaining properly. He opened his mouth:

Mr. Park… remember, you told us –

Suddenly, Mr. Park’s face flushed with anger. “Not in front of the driver! Do you not understand? We do not talk of this in front of the driver –“

… but why –

“Why don’t you understand?” Mr. Park hissed, hysteria tinged. His eyes bulged, and his face reddened; for a second he was grotesque, alien – not the quiet, peaceful man we had previously known, but a man under threat, a man on the verge of a breakdown. It was as if we had lost our only ally to some strange disease. He noticed something – and was suddenly composed, blankly eating his rice with his chopsticks. The driver sat down, his phone-call finished. Mr. Park gave him a little smile, the driver reciprocated. Was the driver – who seemed so blameless, so normal – some sort of informant in our mist? The atmosphere soured further. The driver grinned at us, oblivious, his gold tooth flashing. The waitress, stern as ever, placed a bowl of soup in front of me. As I looked at its greasy, glistening surface, my mind started to slip away.

This soup suddenly became the very symbol of everything that is wrong with Korea. It was served in a discoloured, rusty metal bowl. It looked like dishwater. I picked up the spoon to make a half-hearted attempt at it, only to be put off by Agatha staring smugly at me from the Kindle screensaver, daring me to try the brown, Korean goo. I dropped the spoon. No. No soup here. No soup, not now. Not with Agatha watching. A little piece of my sanity slowly began to dissolve.

Unfortunately, at that moment, in an effort to be nonchalant, Mr. Park made conversation:

“Why are you not having your soup?”

Mr. Park had said the wrong thing. In a fit of anger, anger at this state, the tension, the driver, the soup and, most importantly, Agatha Christie, I shouted: “Because I don’t WANT IT!”

The dining room echoed. My companions looked shocked, the driver confused, Mr. Park, horrified. There was a little pause. The driver, after a beat, resumed ploughing through his food. The waitress shuffled around and took away my soup – and replaced it with another, identical bowl: the next course. There was another call – and the driver broke from his meal and slid away from the table.

Mr. Park leaned forward – and spoke in a stage whisper, producing our passports from his inside jacket pocket:

“A New Plan. Today we are going to go very fast. We are going to go very quickly. We will beat the fax.”

This time there weren’t any questions.

*****

Mr Park’s plan was simple, to get us to the border before the Powers That Be had made their decision. Thanks to the ambiguous grey area of outdated bureaucracy, we had a chance to leave, provided the tour was completed as normal. Therefore, we enacted a series of visits in sped-up Benny Hill fashion, all to maintain such illusion for the driver – the agency’s fourth column.

Destination one: the shoe factory. With a forced nonchalance, we walked upstairs, past the chattering manager. Inside, rows of Korean women made shoes at a breakneck pace. As the factory owner showed us around the machines, Mr. Park made frantic hand signs. We spoke up:

“I think we’ve had enough of shoes Mr. Park.”

The manager gestured into another section. Did we want to see more?

Mr. Park spoke in Korean, quickly, tersely.

The manager’s face fell.  He was awfully proud of those shoes – he’d probably been excited all day that we were going to come and take pictures of them. We walked as quickly as possible back to the car, startling the driver who was smoking a cigarette. “Shoes aren’t our thing,” my friend said – the driver nodded (did he understand? who knows).

Next was a revolutionary site. We stood outside the building – two squat looking wooden houses. “Kim Il Sung visited it” said Mr. Park, uncertainly. “It looks closed, Mr. Park,” we said. It didn’t look very inviting. He looked vaguely at it. “It does look closed, doesn’t it?” “It certainly does, Mr. Park.” He turned away from us and paused, in thought, then turned back. “Sadly, it is not open today. Next time.”

Final stop: the Songbong Port. We sped towards our final tourist stop, the driver humming as we drove. An obvious speed enthusiast, this lightning tour was somewhat appealing to him. The little pink phone lay next to me, ready to ring at any moment. Could I sit on it? Would that break it? I was jolted out my destructive reverie: we had arrived.

Kim Jong Suk

We got out of the car five minutes walk away from the ships. We ambled a little towards the sea, then stopped in front of a picture of Kim Jong Suk. “We’ve seen ports before, Mr. Park,” we said, urgently. “Well,” he said, seriously, “I wouldn’t be doing my duty unless I showed you this port -” “No, no,” cried one of us, “I get seasick even near the sea!” He looked grave. “Well, then we must continue on!” he said, marching back to the car.

Back into the car we bundled – now was the final leg. Barely speaking, we drove through the mountains, winding our way to the border. We had to get there before 10:30, otherwise we’d miss the morning border-shift and be forced to wait. Pressure was on. The four of us intently stared at the car clock as we came closer and closer. Time progressed: 9:45, 9:55… 10:00… Suddenly, at 10:15, we saw a sign – ‘Border, 5km’. Mr. Park leaned forward and spoke:

“I think… I think we shall win!”

With five minutes to spare, we arrived at the border and rushed through. The border guards, bored and elaborately uniformed, indulgently smoked whilst we lugged our bags through the aging scanners. Outside, through the window, we could see the last bus that went across the river idling, empty. We had a few minutes to go.

Suddenly:

“Stop!”

We stopped.

A guard appeared, more officious and less congenial than the rest.

“We have to look through all your photos. To check there aren’t any that aren’t… beautiful.”

We panicked. That could take ages. However, there was nothing we could do: our cameras were taken.

What if we had photographed the wrong thing? What if we had taken a photo that we had to answer for? Normally these sorts of questions would not be going through our heads, but we knew that now, every moment mattered. At any moment the Tourist Board could call the driver who still lurked outside, smoking in the morning sun. Suddenly, Mr. Park appeared – our cameras in his hands. “It is done,” he said. Downstairs we galloped, and shoved our bags onto the bus.

Freedom – The Tumen River

Mr. Park loitered by the bus. In a fit of sentimentality, I took off my watch and handed it over to him. “You always were asking what the time was, Mr. Park, now you have your own watch!” He examined it. “To remember us by,” I said, immediately realising how crass a gesture this was. There was no way Mr. Park would ever want to remember us, remember this unduly stressful period in his life. He stared at the little black device intently, then, with a forced politeness, thanked us. Then, he turned away – disappointed, no doubt, that we couldn’t give him anything better.

That was the final time I saw Mr. Park, his brow furrowed, his hand still grasping the battered plastic strap of my watch. As we trundled across the bridge, towards the relative freedom of China, it was a release for us – a release from Rason’s corruption, bureaucracy and poisonous atmosphere – a release that man will never have.

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About the Author

Nicholas Moran



Join the discussion

  • http://www.twitter.com/bonuallain Barry Nolan

    Well worth waiting for!!

    Sounds like you had a harrowing trip. It’s a shame. I’d hope my trip to DPRK would be better organised-when I book it!

    I also feel for “Mr Park.” I can only imagine that, when it was found out about his collaberation in your escape, the retribution would be deadly. But there’s only so much of this crap you can put up with and he was your hero that day. Fair play to him.

    Excellently written primary source on North Korea.

    Barry

  • Aidan Foster-Carter

    “It’s apparently where a sojourning Chinese official gambled away the entire budget of a town – a story I am assured is true but sounds like the sort of folk nonsense that is repeatedly trotted out when discussing the hermit state.”

    I have never heard that story doubted. This article names the gambler:
    http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk03100&num=2222

    A quick search throws up plenty of other references. See also eg
    http://www.thestandard.com.hk/stdn/std/Front_Page/GA20Aa02.html
    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/GB24Ad06.html

    There are different accounts of how long the casino stayed closed for, but it was certainly several years.

    Not all North Korea stories are tall stories. It is possible to check.

    A great article. Next time, go with Koryotours!

    Cheers
    Aidan FC

  • Lancelot

    I was pleased to check my email this morning and find out part-2 had arrived. Again, well done! (Both in writing, and in squeezing out of the DPRK).

    “I think we’ve had enough of shoes Mr. Park.”

    Priceless. No pun intended.

  • James C

    Great article, glad you made it out!